By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
GRIMES, Iowa, Feb. 12, 2014 — My nephew Mark Watson, 50-something, asked me recently to come tell his West Polk County Rotary Club how to become bicyclists. “I think if you’ll talk about the advantages of biking, it might be good for some of us older farts in the group,” Mark said. Easy topic for me.
The 2014 bicycling season has “officially” opened in the last two weeks. That has happened with the announcement in late January of next summer’s RAGBRAI route, then in early February the annual “BRR” cold weather ride between Perry and Rippey, and now this Saturday’s annual banquet of the Raccoon River Valley Trail Association, being held at the West Des Moines Marriott Hotel.
What that means, I told the Rotarians and now repeat for you all, is that this is the perfect time for anyone who has not been a bicycle rider to become one. I’m going to tell you why you should do that, and how you can go about it in a comfortable way.
My expertise on this is that 2014 is my 32nd year as a bicyclist. I was 35 when I started riding as an adult, after having given up bicycles in junior high school. I had a definite advantage over most people who decide to start riding in adulthood — it was my boss’ idea. Jim Gannon, then the editor of the Des Moines Register called me into his office about July 1, 1983, and told me that Donald Kaul, the co-founder of RAGBRAI, was having back trouble and was giving up the ride. Gannon wondered if I would take Kaul’s place and start riding and writing as RAGBRAI co-host with John Karras.
“We think we need two people out there covering RAGBRAI,” Gannon said, “and it happens out there on your normal turf anyway — across Iowa — so will you do it?” I was in decent shape because I was a jogger, although I was also a smoker and drinker.
“I just have a couple concerns,” I told the editor. “Isn’t RAGBRAI about two weeks from now? That isn’t much time to get ready. And that brings up my other concern — I don’t have a bicycle and I’m broke.”
“We’ll buy the bike,” Gannon said. “Just call up Karras and he’ll arrange it.”
So a couple weeks later, there I was starting out as co-host of RAGBRAI on an 18-speed Trek that Forrest Ridgway, of Bike World, assured me “is a better man than you are. It’s geared so low you can ride it up your garage walls if you want to. It’ll take you wherever you need to go.”
Indeed, it did. I rode that Trek on the next 17 RAGBRAIs, I rode it across the U.S. in 1995, and I totaled more than 100,000 miles on it before I upgraded bikes in the year 2000.
It turned out I loved bicycling. It helped me quit drinking and smoking. It helped me stay reasonably trim.
So, as I said to the Rotarians, there are actually five great reasons to become a bicyclist as an adult, no matter what age you are, and as long as your doctor will approve you starting:
1) You’ll begin to see Iowa, or wherever you live, in a whole new way and you will realize just how much beauty and subtlety you have missed. The reason for that is that you will be seeing it while traveling 10 to 12 miles per hour from the seat of a bicycle, instead of inside a speeding motor vehicle.
2) You’ll achieve a whole new level of physical fitness with exercise that will be much more enjoyable, and easier, than jogging, weight lifting, or workout machines. O.K., the first couple of hundred miles you are riding your bicycle, you’re going to have a sore butt. Get through that, and then it’ll never be a problem again.
3) If you become a year ’round rider — except for the bitterly cold weather like we’ve had so much of this winter — then you’re going to be able to eat about whatever you want. There’s a reason you always hear RAGBRAI riders raving about all the pie that’s out there!
4) When your time comes to face a really serious health challenge — mine was lymphoma — you’ll be able to deal with whatever it is a whole lot better because of your physical fitness and the positive attitude that nearly all of us get from cycling. When I was battling cancer at age 62, my docs ultimately decided that I was a good candidate for a stem cells transplant because I was in decent shape with a reasonably good expectation of longer life, if the transplant worked. The only reason I was in decent shape with a fair chance at extended years is because of all that bicycle riding I’ve done over the years. Without that transplant in the late fall of 2010, I’d be dead now.
5) This last reason has to do with this 2014 season being an ideal one to start cycling. Did you see the new RAGBRAI route? It goes across extreme northern Iowa. It’s heresy for a southern Iowa boy like myself to say this, but those northern Iowa RAGBRAIs are almost always more comfortable and fun. Why? It’s not as far across Iowa up there, it’s flatter and it’s generally five to 10 degrees cooler than it is in southern Iowa. Being able to do all or part of a RAGBRAI in your first year as a cyclist will be a great incentive for you as you start pedaling this spring.
Now, how do you go about starting?
A) Buy a bicycle. Spend some time in the next two or three weeks visiting bike shops, talking to the staff, making sure they measure you so you get a good fit. Plan on spending at least $800 to $1,000 for a fully equipped bike, helmet, riding clothes, gloves, headlight and taillight. If you’re middle-aged or older, I recommend a “hybrid” bike, which has tires about an inch and a quarter wide and which will have handlebars that will let you ride in a more upright position. A sit-down “recumbent” bike will work well for you, too, although it may take you a bit longer to get used to riding a recumbent in a crowd than it does on a more upright bike. Have that new bicycle at your home so you can start taking your first rides in about mid-March.
B) Start stretching and walking now, as often as you can. Take it easy at first. Get to where you are walking a brisk two miles or more, three times a week, from now until the end of March. I just heard Elwynn Taylor, professor of ag meteorology at Iowa State University, say today that we’ve probably seen the last of our sub-zero weather this winter, so walking outdoors is going to be much more enjoyable, real soon.
C) There’s still time to buy tickets and show up this Saturday evening, Feb. 15, for the seventh annual Raccoon River Valley Trail Association banquet at the Marriott in West Des Moines. That gathering will get anybody excited about cycling, especially on our 89-mile paved trail that is one of the best in America. Go to the Internet site www.raccoonrivervalleytrail.org and you can read all about the banquet and order your tickets there.
D) By mid-March, as I said, it’s time to start riding that new bicycle. This is when I recommend the same training regimen I’ve used the last 10 years or so — do “tailwind rides.” Get on a trail or roads with asphalt or concrete surfaces, and ride with the wind for 10 miles. Then have somebody in the family, a friend or a neighbor come pick up you and your bicycle so you don’t have to ride home in a headwind. Do that for your rides in March and April, and you’ll be accumulating good mileage and essential “time on the saddle” that will make you much more comfortable and confident on the bike. In May, you’ll be strong enough so that you won’t have to worry about the wind, and you’ll find it easy to ride either with it or against it, for longer distances.
E) Reserve the weekend of June 14-15, and sign up to ride the “Tour the Raccoon” that the Des Moines Cycle Club sponsors on our trail. You will be able to do that at www.dmcycleclub.com. You ride 60 miles on Saturday from Waukee to Jefferson on the north loop of the RRVT, stay overnight, then ride 60 miles back to Waukee on Sunday on the south loop of the RRVT. You will experience the whole trail that way. You’ll be in Jefferson on the big night of the annual Bell Tower Festival, which is a great time. And at the end of the weekend, you will be a thrilled and confident bike rider, able to do 120 miles of riding comfortably in a weekend. And that means you’re almost ready.
F) Ready for what? See you sometime between July 19-26 for part or all of RAGBRAI. That’s the biggest, oldest and best bicycle touring event in the world. And you will have earned your place on it.
So, Rotarians and everybody else, that’s how it happens. Get out there and have fun!
You can email the blogger at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment by sing the handy form below here.